As you lie in bed, snug under the covers, your kitten stalks your right leg, quietly, stealthily, like a ninja. You make the faintest move – no more than a quiver really – and in a split second she leaps onto your calf. How can your kitten be so adorable and such a holy terror at the same time?
If she’s between 3 and 6 months old, such intense play is normal: It is up to you to properly hone and direct her seemingly boundless energy. When properly fed and in good health, kittens between 3 weeks of age and one year old have an intense urge to play. Their lives at this stage revolve around playing, sleeping, and eating, and they engage in these behaviors cyclically. When kittens are very young their play behavior is more tentative and experimental, but as they mature through the juvenile period (3 to 6 months of age) their play can wreak havoc with your sleep and other aspects of your life.
A graph of play behaviors would show a gradual build-up in frequency and intensity of play bouts, peaking at around 6 months of age, followed by a gentle decline that never actually returns to baseline. Some kittens play hard as youngsters and continue intense play behavior through one year of age and beyond, even up to 2 years old. By this latter age, even the most intense players have usually settled down but it is common for cats to play at times throughout their lives.
Since the purpose of play is to exercise young minds and muscles, improve motor skills and hone social behavior, it may seem odd that it would be continued throughout life. In fact, though play is useful, it is not absolutely necessary for normal development at any life stage. But there is another more plausible reason why cats play throughout their lives – because it’s fun. Cats, like humans, play because they want to, not because they have to.
Before we consider how best to play with a kitten we should consider how they like to play so that we can mimic the fun.
Normal Kitten Play
In the household, social play may be directed toward an owner’s hands and sometimes takes the form of petting-induced aggression. Predatory play may take the form of ambushing attacks directed toward an owner’s calves or feet. It also takes the form of “object play,” which is slightly more common in male kittens. Sexual play can be directed toward rolled up socks or pillows.
How to Direct Play
Play is not simply a hedonistic pleasure but provides mental and physical stimulation that contributes to a kitten’s healthful and happy life. It is our responsibility as cat owners to ensure that our pets have ample opportunity and resources for play. To this end, each owner should research the types of toys that their cat finds most entertaining and should take time to indulge their feline companion. While a cat for your cat is the ultimate solution, a rotation of novel toys and an investment of your energies can go a long way toward accommodating your pet’s needs and providing an outlet for what can otherwise wind up as misdirected behavior.